UNT psychologist, other researchers focusing on bosses' psychopathic traits, leadership

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- "Is your boss a slave-driving psycho?"

That was one of the taglines for the 2011 movie "Horrible Bosses," along with "Crazy Psycho Boss" and "Completely Incompetent Boss." "Horrible Bosses 2," a follow-up to the hit movie, opened last week.

Could an evaluation tool help employees to determine traits of psychopathy, including manipulation and ruthless exploitation of others, lack of conscience and feelings for others and impulsive and reckless behavior, in their supervisors?

Craig Neumann, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, suggests that the answer is yes.

Neumann and colleagues from New York City, the University of Québec at Trois-Rivieres, the University of British Columbia and the University of Texas-El Paso developed the Business-Scan 360, also known as B-Scan 360, to measure employees' perception of psychopathic personality traits in their supervisors.

In a recent study, the researchers correlated employees' B-Scan ratings of their supervisors with the supervisors' ratings on Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. The leadership questionnaire was developed in 2004 by researchers at Binghamton University in New York and the University of Washington and measures three leadership styles -- transformational leadership, transactional leadership and laissez-faire leadership. The study was published in Assessment.

Neumann and the research team had 116 employees from a branch of a large financial company in Canada and 476 employees from a public service organization complete the B-Scan 360 and also the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. All employee responses were kept anonymous to allow employees to express their true perceptions, attitudes and intentions, Neumann said.

The employees used the B-Scan ratings to assess four domains of psychopathy in their supervisors -- manipulative/unethical, callous/Insensitive, unreliable/unfocused and intimidating/aggressive personality features. The results showed that employees who rated their supervisors high for one or more of these behaviors rated the same supervisors as high on the laissez-faire leadership style. In this leadership style, as defined on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire, supervisors will put off making decisions, will not give feedback, will not reward employees for good performance and will make little to no effort to motivate employees.

Neumann said that, based on these results and related research, "the higher a supervisor is rated for psychopathic traits, the lower he or she is rated for positive management style."

"Those with psychopathic traits are great at talking the talk, but, ultimately, they don't get the job done," he said. He noted that laissez-faire leadership may not only reflect absence of leadership, but also passive-aggressive leader behaviors, such as failing to protect employees in a risk-exposed environment and withholding important information from employees.

Other B-Scan results show that higher ratings of psychopathic traits in supervisors strongly predicted lower employee satisfaction, greater conflict between work and family responsibilities and increased levels of psychological distress.

Neumann said the B-Scan 360 research supports the idea that subordinates are capable of providing credible evaluations of a manager's behaviors, attitudes and judgments related to psychopathic traits.

"Research on the relationship between personality and leadership behaviors is extremely important since personality traits tend to be relatively stable across time and are good predictors of leadership," he said, adding that while supervisors could be coached on improving their performances as leaders, "there might be certain personality features that are toxic in the work environment."

Neumann and his colleagues have been on the forefront of research on psychopathy in corporate settings. In 2010, the research team investigated the use of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, which Neumann describes as the "gold standard psychiatric interview for the assessment of psychopathy," in a large corporate study. The study involved one-on-one interviews with 203 high-level corporate professionals who had been selected by their companies for potential leadership development. The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, developed in the 1970s, is widely used to assess criminal offenders in prisons and individuals in high-security psychiatric units.

While 80 percent of the professionals displayed no evidence of psychopathic traits, 3.9 percent had scores on the test that put them at the threshold for psychopathy. Several others scored significantly higher, meaning that this sample of corporate professionals likely contained a number of diagnosable psychopaths, Neumann said.

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